12 January 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE ON HUMANITARIAN SITUATION IN GAZA

 


“I am appalled that this violence on this scale is still continuing in Gaza, and horrified at the human cost of all this,” United Nations Relief Coordinator John Holmes told correspondents this afternoon, informing them that, according to latest Palestinian Ministry of Health figures, the death toll now stood at 884.


Mr. Holmes, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that, of those killed, 275 were children and 93 women –- 42 per cent of the total –- and also included 12 medical personnel.  Three thousand eight hundred and sixty people had been wounded, including 1,333 children and 587 women.  Forty-nine per cent of the wounded were women and children.  He stressed that those figures could not be independently verified, but that they sounded plausible.  The Palestinian civilian casualty rate appeared to be increasing.  On the Israeli side, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4 Israeli civilians had been killed and 250 wounded by the rocket fire since 27 December.  The rocket fire was continuing.


He said the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) had resumed operations, after receiving assurances from Israel.  UNRWA was working very hard with Israeli authorities to ensure that communications were as good as could be.  The Kerem Shalom crossing had been opened again and 93 ½ truckloads had been allowed into Gaza on 11 January.  The stockpile of cargo at the crossing had been cleared, as truck drivers had agreed to start working again after having been reassured about coordination arrangements.  The Rafah crossing had also been open on 11 and 12 January for evacuation of medical cases and entry of limited amounts of medical supplies and some food stuffs.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 189 patients had been transferred through Rafah since 27 December.  The Karni crossing had remained closed.


The number of displaced was a matter of increasing concern, he said.  The number of people seeking shelter at UNRWA schools and other facilities now stood at almost 28,000.  Five more shelters had been opened today.  Many others took refuge with families and friends, especially around Rafah, because of warnings that operations would be taking place there.  The power plant had been able to resume partial operations on 10 January.  Forty per cent of the population now received power for some hours a day.  Damage to the water and sanitation network had not been repaired, yet.  Water purification kits and bottled water were being distributed.  Some 10 food distribution centres remained open.  The three hour “truce” was not satisfactory, as there was confusion about changing times. 


Joining the press conference via video link, John Ging, UNRWA’s Director of Operations in Gaza, reported on his visit to Shiva Hospital, where the “horrific consequences” of the conflict could be seen.  He described seeing a six-year old child with no brain activity and a pregnant woman who had lost a leg.  “Behind the statistics that we read about every day is the real profound human suffering and real tragedy for all involved, not just those killed or injured, but for the families as well,” he said.  The other side of the conflict could also be met, he continued, namely the heroes.  Staff had been working day and night and had lost any sense of time.  They had been joined by some 40 “courageous and humane” people from outside of Gaza. 


He said that, yesterday, eight members of the European Parliament, led by the Parliament’s Vice President, had visited, among other things, a shelter.  They were struck by the dignity of the people, and were unanimous in their appeal for “sanctity”, he said, underlining that nobody was safe in Gaza.  UNRWA was escorting people to the power plant, as employees otherwise felt unsafe to go.  The liaison with Israeli troops was working well.


There were some 500,000 people in Gaza city without water.  Repairs to the system could not be made, as most of the water wells were in combat zones.  Moreover, the daily three-hour truce was too short to make any repairs.  The number of people fleeing their homes was increasing.  There were 35,000 people in 38 locations.  What was needed was to stop the violence.


Answering correspondent’s questions, he said several United Nations buildings had suffered collateral damage, but had not been targeted.  There had been no injuries from those incidents.  There had not been any strikes on the schools.  UNRWA had provided the Israeli liaison officers with the GPS coordinates and with updates on what facilities were being used for shelter.  Convoys were passing safely through the humanitarian corridors.  The provided assurances had been proven reliable.  United Nations buildings were flying the United Nations flag, were painted blue and, through their design, stood out from neighbouring buildings.


As for allegations that shots had been fired from a school where 43 people had been killed when it was shelled, he said such “back and forth” was just not appropriate.  The people and the victims were entitled to accountability.  He reiterated that an independent investigation was necessary, on the basis of which accountability should follow.


He was “just not going to answer” allegations that UNRWA had been infiltrated by Hamas.  No evidence had ever been provided by any authority, at any level.  Absolutely no official allegation had been made. 


He had no indication that the Hamas leadership was using Shiva hospital and he had no first-hand knowledge that Israel was using white phosphorus. 


Responding to another question, Mr. Ging said that he did not have a complete list, but that doctors had come from Norway, the Netherlands, Egypt and Jordan to relive the burden of hospital staff.  More people, among others from Médicins du Monde, were waiting in Jerusalem for clearance.


“Nobody is safe”, he answered, in response to a question on whether it would be safe for the Secretary-General to visit the Gaza Strip.


Asked about a family that allegedly had been guided by Israeli troops to a house and had subsequently been killed by Israeli shelling, something denied by Israeli authorities, Mr. Holmes said there were two reports.  The International Red Cross had described finding the bodies, as well as the fact that Israeli soldiers were not more than 80 metres away from the building and must have known what had happened.  The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jerusalem had talked to eyewitnesses who had corroborated the story.


Answering another question, Mr. Holmes said there were conflicting reports about a possible escalation of hostilities.  If operations were expanded, UNRWA would judge on a day to day basis whether to continue to operate.


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For information media • not an official record